“If there’s one lesson that we can draw, that we must draw, from the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is that adversity is not a cause for despair. It is a call to action,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Sunday at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Lynch’s remarks at the service, which will be her last public speech as attorney general, reflected not only on the life and lessons of King but also on her time leading the Department of Justice.
The service opened with song and a reading of chapter six of the biblical book of Micah, which includes the famous exhortation to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” that King referred to in his 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Following words from the Rev. Arthur Price, Mayor William Bell came to the stage and thanked Lynch for her service to the nation.
“We will be deeply appreciative for many decades to come for the work that you’ve done, the groundwork and the fields that you have plowed to make sure that there will be a sweet harvest that will come for justice in America,” Bell said, addressing Lynch directly.
Bell was followed by Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who recounted how the sacrifices of the civil rights movement had paved the way for Lynch, an African-American woman, to hold one of the highest offices in the nation. Joyce Vance, the outgoing U.S. attorney for northern Alabama, then ascended the stage, where she compared Lynch to the heroes of the civil rights movement and said that she “made sure the Justice Department’s mission was consistent with its name.”
“Tomorrow we will celebrate the life of a great man, Martin Luther King, who liked to say that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. It’s ‘long but it bends toward justice,’” Vance said. “That arc is both stronger and longer toward justice because of the work of Attorney General Lynch.”
Lynch began her speech by celebrating the Obama administration’s designation of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, among other sites significant in the Birmingham civil rights movement, as a national monument.
“This is a living monument, just as is this an active and a vibrant church,” Lynch said. “Sixteenth Street reminds us as few places can that freedom is not free. Freedom is not free; it comes with a price. And the price of freedom is constant vigilance. Sixteenth Street reminds us that it is up to us, all of us here and now to ensure that the triumphs of the past remain intact for all the Americans of the future.”
Lynch noted that the efforts of King and other civil rights activists who used the Sixteenth Baptist Street Church as their headquarters in Birmingham, and the tragedy of the 1963 bombing that killed four young girls, led directly to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Lynch described as the nation’s “most significant steps toward equality since the end of the Civil War.”
That legacy has not been without its challenges, she noted, drawing particular attention to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which in 2013 overturned the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required certain state and local governments with histories of discrimination to receive preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws. Lynch said that the ruling “has significantly curtailed our ability to enforce the Voting Rights Act” but added that the Justice Department continues to challenge laws it sees as discriminatory.
“I could not be prouder of the Justice Department’s record of achievement over the last eight years,” Lynch said, “but I also know that our work is far from finished. Our accomplishments should make us proud but they should not make us complacent.”
Lynch acknowledged that the struggle for civil rights continues to face serious obstacles, but she said that King’s example and legacy offered instruction on how to deal with such opposition. She recounted that, in his eulogy for the four girls murdered in the 1963 bombing, King remarked, “Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream . . .In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter.”
Lynch advised those worried by the unresolved racial tensions in the nation to take King’s words to heart and, drawing inspiration from them, to actively seek a better future. She acknowledged that these are “difficult days” and that many people around the country worry for the future.
“I hear, when I talk to people around this country, that many worry that Dr. King’s dream and all that has flowed from it is at risk like never before. And in my travels, I’ve seen that concern. I’ve seen the disconnect between the forces of our government and the communities that we serve. I’ve seen the concerns that the voting booth will be moved out of reach, that our hearts will close along with our borders, and that a prayer in a different tongue or a different posture will place one at deadly risk,” she said.
“And I’ve seen the fear that once again we will let a distinction without a difference govern our view of our fellow Americans rather than what is in their hearts. I’ve seen the fear that with a turn of the electoral wheel, so many of us will be seen as children of a lesser God.”
However, Lynch said, she had also seen many Americans who struggle for justice and work to serve their community and country even at great risk to themselves. She explained that the strength and commitment to equality that she saw in communities around the nation gave her faith in her fellow countrymen.
“Birmingham knows, and Sixteenth Street knows, you can’t take progress for granted. It doesn’t come by happenstance, it doesn’t come by chance, it doesn’t happen because we wish and hope for it,” she said. “We have to work. We have come a long way, a mighty long way, in our struggle to build a society that is worthy of the promises set forth in our founding documents, there’s no doubt. But there’s no doubt that we still have a long way to go, a mighty long way to go.”